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Semafor LogoShelby Talcott and David Weigel
politics

In new memoir, Mike Pompeo says Trump told him to ‘shut the hell up’ about China

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Title iconThe Scoop
Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Donald Trump told former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “shut the hell up for a while” about China at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in order to avoid angering the country’s leader, according to a memoir that Pompeo will publish next week.

In “Never Give An Inch,” Pompeo recounts a March 26 call between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, one day after the secretary of state said that China had “repeatedly delayed” sharing information about the virus and engaged in a “disinformation campaign.”

According to Pompeo, who listened in to the call, Xi told Trump that his cabinet member was jeopardizing the “phase one” trade deal that the principals had just agreed to. Pompeo believed that Xi was trying to get Trump to fire him — “My Mike, that fucking guy hates you!” the president said after the call — and a few days later, in the Oval Office, Trump told Pompeo that he was “putting us all at risk” by angering Xi, in part because the United States still needed protective health equipment from China.

“Stop, for God’s sake!” said the president.

Pompeo writes that he “honored” Trump’s desire to stop criticizing China, but that he “spoke the truth” about the situation.

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“We needed health equipment and were at the CCP’s mercy for it,” Pompeo writes. “I worked for the president, and would bide my time.”

Title iconShelby and Dave's view

We’ve only reviewed part of Pompeo’s memoir, but his recollection of the pandemic’s early days hints at how he could criticize Trump if he joins him in the 2024 presidential race.

Trump, who said today that he would ban Chinese nationals from buying American farmland or energy companies, has criticized Xi and the CCP repeatedly since leaving office. He spent much of his term in a trade war with China, culminating in the “phase one” agreement, which expired thirteen months ago, and has accused President Joe Biden of being personally compromised by Chinese money, signaling how he’d use the issue in a 2024 campaign.

Pompeo’s story goes after Trump’s credibility on that issue, reminding readers that the former president favored a friendlier approach to Xi than he did. He even quotes a Jan. 2020 tweet that Democrats have thrown back at Trump, thanking China for its effort to “contain the coronavirus” and ending with “on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”

“I was not happy that the president had tweeted that,” Pompeo writes.

Pompeo might have difficulty landing the punch, however, in part because Trump’s tough-on-China image is so thoroughly baked in among voters. Critics are also likely to turn the argument back onto Pompeo, and question why he agreed to hold his criticisms on an issue he felt so strongly about.

Title iconRoom for Disagreement

A former Trump official familiar with the situation suggested Pompeo’s account may be somewhat exaggerated. They said that the president listened to Pompeo’s views on China, and moved in his direction during the pandemic, but that it was a stretch to say that Xi was trying to get him fired. A Trump spokesman declined to comment.

Title iconNotable
  • In a section of his memoir shared with Fox News, Pompeo recounts a secret trip he took to North Korea during his time as CIA director, where he met Kim Jong Un to discuss nuclear arms. ​​He writes: "This small, sweating, evil man tried to break the ice with all the charm you would expect from a mass murderer. ‘Mr. Director,’ he opened, ‘I didn’t think you’d show up. I know you’ve been trying to kill me.’ … I decided to lean in with a little humor of my own: ‘Mr. Chairman, I’m still trying to kill you.’”
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